Not For the Faint of Heart: Faith and Suffering on the Camino
Speaking with Olive has always been for me, since my arrival here at St. Mary’s in September, an experience of quiet comfort. While I know full well that one should never judge a book by its cover, I was delightfully surprised when I had the opportunity to interview Olive about her experiences as a world faring pilgrim in the hot and hilly countryside of western Europe. Over the span of six weeks, Olive walked the Portuguese route of the Camino, a world famous pilgrimage which follows the journey of St. James in his efforts to evangelize the known world. While one may be lured into a sense of docility by her demeanor and stature, Olive, though gentle in nature, has a heart fortified by steel tested in fire.
As someone who has walked several hundred kilometres in the span of a few weeks, I can say that it is not just anyone who can choose to do and complete a 610 km walking pilgrimage, let alone someone in their late seventies as Olive did. Despite the immense physical challenge that this kind of activity requires, I could hear one stalwart message recurring in Olive’s story: “This is the adventure I have placed upon your shoulders. Bear it as best you can.”
Olive’s dream of completing the Camino was 10 years in the making. God placed this fervent desire within her heart even though she simply did not have the necessary time for fulfilling this desire. Olive’s quiet determination harkened deeply the action of the Holy Spirit. It is a stark reminder that God acts in His own time and according to His own wisdom. Likewise, God never asks us to wait for something without also giving the requisite patience and strength.
One by one all the pieces necessary for Olive’s pilgrimage fell into place. Through a local hiking club, Olive met a gentleman named Bob who, having done two similar pilgrimages before, was capable of providing all the practical advice that Olive would ever need concerning what to expect and how to prepare. Hoping that she would be able to do this journey with someone at her side, and having received several “no’s” from friends and family, Olive was delightfully surprised when Bob offered to be her companion on her own journey. I can only imagine that, after meeting Bob, Olive’s family was elated knowing that at least she would have an expert guide.
The irony is that after having waited for 10 years Olive would now embark upon one of the most difficult experiences of her entire life. Many an atheist would guffaw at such a reality, and say, “Who could believe in such a God!?” To the contrary, Olive expressed in different ways how God was able to speak to her directly through her suffering. The pain, as it were, was not only a fuel for her own prayer, something to offer up for her family and friends, but it was a medium through which God spoke as well.
As Olive climbed the interminable and unending series of hills that lay between her and Santiago de Compostela, her final destination, Olive would make the simplest of prayers: “Lord, give me the strength for just one more step.” The sheer beauty and life changing allure of pilgrimages is precisely these moments when we touch utter simplicity. Taxes, relationships, careers, and all other worldly concerns melt away before the one awesome task which confronts the pilgrim over and over again: Can I take but one more step?
While it may sound to the uninitiated like the height of boredom, this simple daily battle becomes an adventure of its own. The human will goes to battle against doubt, the devil, and our own human frailty. In return, God supplants our weakness with His strength in a way that begins to become increasingly tangible. As Olive reflected upon her own journey, she said with a particular calmness: “God was carrying me.” He is there. He never leaves our side.
Barring death or some other act of God, Olive was absolutely determined to finish her pilgrimage, no matter the cost. As such, vulnerability is also part of the pilgrim’s journey, and Olive expressed this in her own fatigue. What was curious, is that by allowing herself to be vulnerable, Olive ended up in situations where other people were able to assist her. In one such experience, sick with a cold and fatigued to no end, a couple of fellow pilgrims decided to make some soup which they promptly shared with her, saving the trouble of needing to leave the hostel in search of food. These random acts of kindness speckled Olive’s story like little glints of light reflected off of precious gems.
The communal aspect of the pilgrimage, Olive explained, brought everyone down to an even playing field. No matter one’s profession or achievements in life, everyone on the Camino was a pilgrim, trudging forward one dusty step at a time. Just about anyone who did this walk entered into a world where a particular shared experience, which had become the totality of these people’s lives for a short time, wiped away the social barriers that can easily prevent us from connecting with one another. Each seeing “one like myself” who also suffered this heat and climbed these hills was able to connect to that other.
The import of this lesson carries way beyond the trails of the Camino. In fact, every lesson learned by doing a walking pilgrimage can easily be applied to our own spiritual pilgrimage. From the moment of our Baptism we are entrusted with the greatest of adventures. That which carries the human soul, through all sorts of trials, tribulations, and dangers, towards the awesome throne of God. This latter journey requires the same dogged persistence that Olive displayed, the same reliance on God for every little step, the same indifference to our own personal suffering in light of our lofty goal, and the same sense of communal attachment to all those who join us on this journey.
Olive still had not fully answered the question as to why God placed such a fervent desire for this trip on her heart. We do not need to understand, however, to be a lamp shining in the darkness. The beauty and strength displayed by Olive’s pilgrimage have already inspired three generations of onlookers. The effect that this has, especially upon those who love her, cannot be understated. Likewise, the serenity Olive has gained by going deeper in her trust in God can only continue to have profound influence on those in her life.